Psychology Melbourne Blog

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At year's end, a relationship review

Edited by Jill Wright,

Most psychologists know that the field of relationship counselling is arguably the most demanding and difficult areas of practice. That's one of the reasons we have developed our own program that has happily proved to be successful even with couples who have tried counselling previously without success.

This morning, going through some of the articles I've collected over the years as I've sought out things that might help clients, I came across a piece by Elizabeth Bernstein, the Wall Street Journal's Bonds columnist, which she wrote in April 2010, looking at research by experienced marriage counsellors which showed that most marriages don't fail because of major setbacks like serious illness or lost jobs.

Facing that sort of adversity, couples more often than not come together and support each other.

Ironically, it's the small things that can completely dismantle a marriage. If one partner constantly leaves dirty laundry around, for instance, those seemingly minor failings can accumulate into a major grievance, because the underlying message is "I don't care what you think", or "I can't be bothered about your feelings."

That same year, the Journal of Family Psychology published research from Howard Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Denver and co-director of the Centre for Marital and Family Studies that showed that couples who work hard at reducing nagging increase their chances of staying together, happily.

As Dr Markman pointed out, "Nagging is an enemy of love, if allowed to persist."

Bernstein's column picked up on the research and reported on the advice from experts. Rather than continuing to nag, try to understand what might be going on with your partner. Is your husband overworked and tired, rather than lazy or unloving? Or is your wife not so much untrusting, as trying to keep track of too many household chores?

It can be very helpful, for instance, to look for alternative solutions: hiring a handyman rather than spoiling the relationship; communicate why what you are asking for is important to you or seeing things from your partner's perspective for a change.

And this month, another Wall Street Journal writer, Jennifer Breheny Wallace, had some timely advice as we approach the end of the year: give your partner an annual performance review.

It's something we tend to associate with work, but many couples find it extremely helpful. 

Wallace and her husband conduct theirs over dinner, close to New Year's Eve, talking about accomplishments, areas for improvement and goals. While their review is more tongue-in-cheek, some of their friends hold an annual "Board of Directors Meeting", complete with a formal agenda that examines four areas: personal, professional, philanthropic and spiritual. 

"Another couple with adult children makes their review a full-family affair, with a psychologist on hand in case the conversation gets heated," Wallace reports.

Too many couples spend all their time worrying about Christmas shopping and arrangements for Christmas lunch and New Year's Eve celebrations. For couples, an annual review might be even more important than the most powerful of New Year's resolutions. They could be a wonderful opportunity to build, strengthen - and celebrate - a relationship.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.